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Remote backup trends and technologies

An increasing number of branch offices and the popularity of wireless technologies have made remote data backup a necessity in companies of all sizes. This tip presents you with common remote backup issues and business opportunities.

Data is being pushed out of the data center by two trends that may ultimately benefit you as an IT channel professional:

1. Branch offices are far more common as companies seek to extend their global reach and improve regional/local service.

2, Wireless technologies have vastly expanded the use of laptops and other mobile computing devices -- making each mobile user a "branch office."

Then the question for many of your customers (and potential customers) becomes how to protect that data without slowing productivity. Many companies don't have IT staffers with the expertise to understand and work with remote data backup technologies.

Do you have the know-how? This tip will help get you up to speed on key remote backup issues and present you with some business opportunities.

WAN backups

Traditionally, remote office data backups were made to tape drives located in each remote office. Completed tapes would then be shipped to the data center or moved directly to off-site storage. The problem with this tape approach is that nontechnical personnel were usually pressed into service to perform the data backup and handle the tapes -- often leading to backup problems. You could resolve some of these problems for customers by offering a service to ship and store tapes.

More recently, storage shops have been replacing remote tapes with WAN links. Dedicated links can be used, but inexpensive and readily available broadband Internet services are commonly employed to collect critical data from remote offices. This approach offers more control over the data backup process without involving remote personnel. LiveVault's InControl (owned by Iron Mountain) is one popular software tool for remote data backup, and it is capable of supporting both offices and individual mobile users.

Remote office backups are generally stored on a disk-based storage system, but it's important to note that WAN backups do not necessarily eliminate the use of tape. Instead, it offers tape consolidation because remote data is first gathered in the data center. Once in the data center, a complete backup can be made to virtual tape libraries (VTL) or tape. IT personnel can oversee tape creation within the data center and ship tapes off site if necessary.

Remote data backup strategies and planning

WAN backups require a certain amount of preparation and planning to ensure adequate performance. The single most important issue to consider is data volume -- understand just how much data needs to be backed up in a typical evening from each remote site. Once you know how much data must be transferred, work with a customer to select a WAN service that offers adequate bandwidth (and fits your budget). Bandwidth costs can be mitigated by adjusting backup needs.

Other factors are also gaining importance for WAN data backups. Data deduplication -- also called commonality factoring or intelligent compression -- works to eliminate redundant information. While a typical backup may record numerous copies of the same file, data deduplication only records one copy of the file, simply providing pointers to subsequent iterations of the file. For example, if there are 20 copies of the same 1 MB file, a typical backup would need 20 MB for those copies, data deduplication saves only one 1 MB file and references additional copies -- using only 1 MB instead of 20 MB. Compression and encryption should also be considered.

Another issue to consider with any WAN strategy is the consequence of WAN failure. Storage planners must identify the business impact of a WAN link problem and make plans to minimize any impact. For example, temporary outages might simply be corrected by performing the backup later in the evening when the link returns. Longer interruptions may require a different response.

The role of WAFS

Wide-area file services (WAFS) is receiving increased attention as a means of IT consolidation. WAFS uses WAN connections to share applications and data directly from the corporate data center. Changed files are saved directly to the data center. This effectively eliminates servers and other IT infrastructure at remote sites. Although WAFS is not a remote backup technology, it can potentially eliminate the need for remote backups simply because there is no remote data to backup; all data used by remote offices is obtained from (and retained in) the primary data center.

To mitigate bandwidth limitations and latency issues, WAFS is typically implemented through remote appliances that locally cache the most frequently used files from the data center. One example of this is the Steelhead appliance family from Riverbed Technology Inc. Any changes to the data are then held in the local appliance's cache until it can be resynchronized with the data center. Techniques like data deduplication and compression are frequently employed to optimize WAFS bandwidth and accelerate apparent performance.

WAN interruptions can be particularly troublesome for a WAFS implementation -- locally cached files cannot be updated back at the data center, and new (uncached) files cannot be obtained until the WAN link returns. Organizations considering WAFS deployments must pay particular attention to WAN reliability.


This tip originally appeared on

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